Raul Hilberg and Avi Shlaim: Speak out in defense of the Holocaust scholarship of Norman Finkelstein





The battle over political science professor Norman Finkelstein to receive tenure at DePaul University is heating up. Finkelstein - one of the country’s foremost critics of Israeli policy - has taught at DePaul for the past six years. His tenure has been overwhelmingly approved at the departmental and college level, but the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has opposed it.
A final decision is expected to be made in the coming weeks. Finkelstein has accused Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz of being responsible for leading the effort to deny him tenure. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Dershowitz admitted that he had sent a letter to DePaul faculty members lobbying against Finkelstein’s tenure. Then last week the Wall Street Journal published an article by Dershowitz titled “Finkelstein’s Bigotry.” In it, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein of being an “anti-Semite” and says that he “does not do ‘scholarship’ in any meaningful sense.”

Finkelstein’s two main topics of focus over his career have been the Holocaust and Israeli policy. Today we are joined by two world-renowned scholars in these fields:

Raul Hilberg. One of the best-known and most distinguished of Holocaust historians. He is author of the seminal three-volume work “The Destruction of the European Jews” and is considered the founder of Holocaust studies. He joins us on the line from his home in Vermont.

Avi Shlaim. Professor of international relations at Oxford University. He is the author of numerous books, most notably “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.” He is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: The battle over political science professor Norman Finkelstein to receive tenure at DePaul University in Chicago is heating up. Finkelstein is one of the country’s foremost critics of Israeli policy. He has taught at DePaul for the past six years. His tenure has been overwhelmingly approved at the departmental and college level. A college-wide faculty panel voted 5-0 to back his ten-year bid, but the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has opposed it. A final decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Professor Finkelstein has accused Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz of being responsible for leading the effort to deny him tenure. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Dershowitz admitted he had sent a letter to DePaul faculty members lobbying against Finkelstein’s tenure. Then, last week the Wall Street Journal published an article by Dershowitz titled “Finkelstein’s Bigotry.” In it, Dershowitz accuses Finkelstein of being an anti-Semite and says he “does not do scholarship in any meaningful sense.” Professor Finkelstein's two main topics of focus over his career have been the Holocaust and Israeli policy.

Today, we’re joined by two world-renowned scholars in these fields. Raul Hilberg is one of the best known and most distinguished of Holocaust historians. He is author of the seminal three-volume work, The Destruction of the European Jews. He’s considered the founder of Holocaust studies. He joins us from his home in Vermont. Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at Oxford University in Britain. He is the author of numerous books, most notably The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. He’s widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

We’ll begin in Vermont with Professor Hilberg. Can you talk about Professor Finkelstein's contribution to Holocaust studies with his book, The Holocaust Industry?

RAUL HILBERG: Yes. I read this book, which was published about seven years ago, even as I, myself, was researching actions brought against Swiss companies, notably banks, but also other enterprises in insurance and in manufacturing. And the gist of all of these claims, all of these actions, was that somehow the Swiss banks, in particular, and other enterprises, as well, owed money to Jews or the survivors or the living descendants of people who were victims. The actions were brought by claims lawyers, by the World Jewish Congress, which joined them, and a blitz was launched in the newspapers. Congressmen and senators were mobilized, officials of regulatory agencies in New York and elsewhere. Threats were issued in the nature of withdrawal of pension funds, of boycotts, of bad publicity.

And I was struck by the fact, even as I, myself, was researching the same territory that Professor Finkelstein was covering, that the Swiss did not owe that money, that the $1,250,000,000 that were agreed as a settlement to be paid to the claimants was something that in very plain language was extorted from the Swiss. I had, in fact, relied upon the same sources that Professor Finkelstein used, perhaps in addition some Swiss items. I was in Switzerland at the height of the crisis, and I heard from so-called forensic accountants about how totally surprised the Swiss were by this outburst. There is no other word for it.

Now, Finkelstein was the first to publish what was happening in his book The Holocaust Industry. And when I was asked to endorse the book, I did so with specific reference to these claims. I felt that within the Jewish community over the centuries, nothing like it had ever happened. And even though these days a couple of billion dollars are sometimes referred to as an accounting error and not worthy of discussion, there is a psychological dimension here which not must be underestimated.

I was also struck by the fact that Finkelstein was being attacked over and over. And granted, his style is a little different from mine, but I was saying the same thing, and I had published my results in that three-volume work, published in 2003 by Yale University Press, and I did not hear from anybody a critical word about what I said, even though it was the same substantive conclusion that Finkelstein had offered. So that’s the gist of the matter right then and there.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think, Professor Hilberg, he was criticized and you were not?

RAUL HILBERG: Well, Finkelstein -- I believe Finkelstein was criticized mainly for the style that he employed. And he was vulnerable. And it was clear to me already years ago that some campaigns were launched -- from what sector, I didn't know -- to remove him from the academic world. Years ago, I got a phone call from someone who was in charge of a survivors' group in California who told me that Finkelstein had been ousted from a job in New York City at a university -- actually, a college there -- and this was done under pressure.

And then, again, I gave a lecture a year and a half ago in Chicago, which is the place where Finkelstein had been employed at DePaul University, and my lecture was about Auschwitz, and it was based on the records, which we’ve now recovered from Moscow, about the history of this camp. Not exactly a simple topic. But there was a question period, and I awaited pertinent questions, when someone rose from his chair and asked, “Should Finkelstein be tenured?” Now, for heaven’s sake, I said to myself, what is going on here?

And whether he’s being intimidated, whether he is in a situation where, whatever else may be happening, the employers are being intimidated, it’s hard for me to say, but there is very clearly a campaign, which was made very obvious in the Wall Street Journal, when Professor Dershowitz wrote in a style which is highly uncharacteristic of the editorial page of this newspaper, which incidentally I read religiously. So I, myself, cannot fully explain this outburst, but it clearly emanates from the same anger, from the same revolt, that prompted the whole action against the Swiss to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Professor Avi Shlaim into this discussion, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, has written numerous books, including The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Can you talk about the significance of Professor Finkelstein's work?

AVI SHLAIM: Yes. I think very highly of Professor Finkelstein. I regard him as a very able, very erudite and original scholar who has made an important contribution to the study of Zionism, to the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, in particular, to the study of American attitudes towards Israel and towards the Middle East.

Professor Finkelstein specializes in exposing spurious scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict. And he has a very impressive track record in this respect. He was a very promising graduate student in history at Princeton, when a book by Joan Peters appeared, called From Time Immemorial, and he wrote the most savage exposition in critique of this book. It was a systematic demolition of this book. The book argued, incidentally, that Palestine was a land without a people for people without a land. And Professor Finkelstein exposed it as a hoax, and he showed how dishonest the scholarship or spurious scholarship was in the entire book. And he paid the price for his courage, and he has been a marked man, in a sense, in America ever since. His most recent book is Beyond Chutzpah, follows in the same vein of criticizing and exposing biases and distortions and falsifications in what Americans write about Israel and about the Middle East. So I consider him to be a very impressive and a very learned and careful scholar.

I would like to make one last point, which is that his style is very polemical, and I don't particularly enjoy the strident polemical style that he employs. On the other hand, what really matters in the final analysis is the content, and the content of his books, in my judgment, is of very high quality.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Shlaim, what about the whole issue of when you criticize the Israeli government, being charged with anti-Semitism? What is your response to this? You were born in Iraq. You’re also an Israeli citizen and then moved to Britain?

AVI SHLAIM: I am. I was born in Baghdad. I grew up in Israel. I served in IDF. And for the last forty years, I have lived in Britain, and I teach at Oxford. My academic discipline is international relations, and I am a specialist in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And I think that there is no -- that we must be very careful to separate questions of anti-Semitism from critique of Israel. I am critical of Israel as a scholar, and anti-Semitism just doesn't come into it. My view is that the blind supporters of Israel -- and there are many of them in America, in particular -- use the charge of anti-Semitism to try and silence legitimate criticism of Israeli practices. I regard this as moral blackmail. Israel has no immunity to criticism, moral immunity to criticism, because of the Holocaust. Israel is a sovereign nation-state, and it should be judged by the same standards as any other state. And Norman Finkelstein is a very serious critic and a very well-informed critic and hard-hitting critic of Israeli practices in the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians.

His last book, Beyond Chutzpah, is based on an amazing amount of research. He seems to have read everything. He has gone through the reports of Israeli groups, of human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and Peace Now and B’Tselem, all of the reports of Amnesty International. And he deploys all this evidence from Israeli and other sources in order to sustain his critique of Israeli practices, Israeli violations of human rights of the Palestinians, Israeli house demolitions, the targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, the cutting down of trees, the building of the wall -- the security barrier on the West Bank, which is illegal -- the restrictions imposed on the Palestinians in the West Bank, and so on and so forth. I find his critique extremely detailed, well-documented and accurate.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hilberg, like you, Norman Finkelstein is the son of Holocaust victims, his mother and his father both in concentration camps. Your final thoughts on this whole dispute and whether Norman Finkelstein should get tenure at DePaul University in Chicago?

RAUL HILBERG: Well, let me say at the outset, I would not, unasked, offer advice to the university in which he now serves. Having been in a university for thirty-five years myself and engaged in its politics, I know that outside interferences are most unwelcome. I will say, however, that I am impressed by the analytical abilities of Finkelstein. He is, when all is said and done, a highly trained political scientist who was given a PhD degree by a highly prestigious university. This should not be overlooked. Granted, this, by itself, may not establish him as a scholar.

However, leaving aside the question of style -- and here, I agree that it’s not my style either -- the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book, was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came, when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated to pay that money. That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Raul Hilberg and Professor Avi Shlaim, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Raul Hilberg, speaking to us from his home in Vermont, one of the best-known and most distinguished of Holocaust historians, his three-volume work is The Destruction of the European Jews. Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford University in Britain, his book, his latest, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Thank you very much for joining us.


comments powered by Disqus
History News Network